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Steinberg: This flower stinks at everything


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The Spike T-shirts are printed and ready, waiting in the Chicago Botanic Garden gift shop.

Only $19.99.

But Spike mania hit a serious road bump this weekend.

The star of the show froze in the wings and refused to go on.

All August, the Botanic Garden in Glencoe had been ballyhooing its amorphophallus titanum, popularly known as a “corpse flower,” an enormous, rare Indonesian plant that was expected to open spectacularly and cast off a nauseating stench that, counterintuitively, always draws crowds of the public, who like nothing better than to see something that isn’t often seen or smell something that isn’t often smelled.

The crowds showed up — 57,000 to see it in person since it was unveiled Aug. 6, hundreds of thousands more following online — to ogle a plant that was growing inches a day. Hundreds were there Sunday waiting in line to see the flower bloom have its outer spath cut off by conservation scientists, in a kind of botanic circumcision, attempting to harvest the pollen.

Shannon Still, of the Botanic Garden, displays the maroon lining of the corpse flower's spath, or outer coating. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Shannon Still, of the Botanic Garden, displays the maroon lining of the corpse flower’s spath, or outer coating. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

OPINION


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Among them was Ava Gaddini, 9, with her parents, Leah Starkman and James Gaddini. She had been checking Spike’s live feed every day after school, drawn by the rarity of the occasion.

“It blooms every 12 years,” she said.

“Or doesn’t bloom,” I couldn’t resist adding, but pointed out that the Botanic Garden has eight other titan arums on deck in its greenhouse, and one could be blooming by Halloween, though it’s hard to imagine they’ll be able to re-create the commotion a second time.

Visitors who managed to pack around the flower gasped and applauded as the huge leaves were cut away, revealing a deep maroon interior designed to attract pollenating insects.

There was no smell.

The plant had been cultivated for 12 years, and staffers wept Saturday when they realized that Spike lacked the energy to bloom. One compared it to a “stillbirth.”

While officials at the garden said hopes dimmed only recently, as the days rolled on, I begun to have my suspicions. Could this be a dud? But I was reluctant to start tapping my watch face in public. Friday I could no longer resist, and finally tweeted:

“Am I the first person to wonder whether the damn corpse flower is ever going to open? @chicagobotanic #openalready”

I should make it clear that I’m a member of the Botanic Garden, and take no pleasure in Spike’s epic fail.

Well, maybe a little pleasure, the kind of small smile of satisfaction I imagine a church lady who faithfully attends Mass every single morning might feel when it rains on the annual parish carnival. Because the Tilt-o-Whirl is not what this is all about. Big media splashes are addictive, and I’d hate to see the Botanic Garden stagger from one blockbuster to the next, hyping a titan arum today, showcasing the Whistling Wisteria of Borneo tomorrow.

And not because I’m selfish, and prefer a depopulated garden to wander through in blissful solitude. Even on the most crowded Sunday morning, even at the height of Spike Fever, as people dutifully trudged past, gazing goonily at his green erectile majesty, once you stroll beyond the immediate vicinity of the entrance, the crowd thins out — people don’t like to walk — and by the time you get to the rolling patch of prairie toward the back, you’re mostly alone.

No, I believe this development, disappointing though it is to those involved, teaches an important lesson: While you can’t fool Mother Nature, Mother Nature certainly can fool you.

Yes, there is much clockwork dependability. The swallows return every year. The moon waxes and wanes on schedule.

And I suppose you can splice genes and seed clouds and similarly skew the natural order, now and then.

But only so much. We have to resist falling into a false sense of certainty, of which the Botanic Garden was guilty, its PR klaxon slipping into a tone of giddy inevitability.

“The night Spike blooms will thrill us all in the semi-tropical greenhouse, with its breathtaking flower … accompanied by a titanically rotten smell,” Tim Pollack, the outdoor floriculturist, wrote on Aug. 16.

The Botanic Garden folks should take comfort. People did turn out, and I can see those Spike T-shirts getting snapped up anyway. While plants are not always predictable, people are, and they like souvenirs they think will be rare or ironic, such as memorabilia from that big fizzle of a flower, which ended up stinking up the place, though not in the sense that its handlers expected.

The Spike T-shirts were ready, at $19.99, but the flower itself was not. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

The Spike T-shirts were ready, at $19.99, but the flower itself was not. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times


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